Tag Archives: On Being

The ethics of aid

I recently applied for a year-long ‘volunteer’ (I say that because participants are paid a living wage in exchange for their services) placement in Kenya, working at a radio station. I didn’t get the position, which was disappointing at first, but it’s got me thinking about aid and what it really entails.

I find the notion of so-called “voluntourism” makes me a little uncomfortable. I have little interest in spending my few weeks of holidays each year helping people dig ditches, which is how so many volunteer opportunities are often framed. In these instances, it seems like the locals really are missing out, as affluent white folks actually pay money to volunteer – and don’t ask for anything in return.

Locals, of course, require an income to live. Why pay a local when a silly foreigner will work for free?

However, I’m totally okay with working in a position where the skills I already have can be put to good use, working with locals – rather than instead of locals – to help out. It’s not entirely selfless on my part at all; part of the trade off for me is being able to live in another country for six months or a year without having to worry about visa hassles and the like.

The program I applied for was run through AusAID, Australia’s government-run aid department. I had, of course, hear whispers prior to applying of Australian international aid projects violating human rights and perhaps being somewhat corrupt (spending a lot of money to improve the situation in a country that could be of financial or strategic benefit to us as a nation counts as corruption, right?), but I tried not to let that worry me.

I read this article in New Matilda over the weekend, though, that has got me questioning my choices – and has also landed me in quite the pickle.

“This is the tragedy of the aid mentality, the belief that any aid is good aid and that aid must by definition be helping poor people. As AID/WATCH has too often revealed, it is often the poor that bear the brunt of the costs of development which is carried out in their name.”

I like to help. It’s in my nature. I’m no mother Theresa, but for someone who doesn’t possess an iota of maternal instinct, I sure got overloaded with compassion. But I can’t knowingly become involved with an organisation that has committed human rights abuses, can I? Is all aid good aid, or is there a serious drawback to development in other countries?

If organisations such as AusAID can’t even be trusted to do the right thing, who can we trust? Is there such a good thing as aid, or does it always come at a cost?

Would we perhaps be better off investing our aid dollars into education and training to help locals – with their understanding of the cultural and spiritual complexities of the people they work with – to direct funds into projects, and to just step away altogether?

I listened to this really interesting interview when researching this topic, and I found the tie that the interviewee, Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina, saw between aid and colonialism to be really poignant. And he’s entirely correct – why are we still trying to force a mentality of Western development on Africa and other regions which are, by our Western standards, lagging behind?

So therein lies my pickle: I want to go and experience different places and do different things, but I don’t want to be involved in anything unethical or colonialist. Can it be avoided? Is there a way to “help” that is ethical, or is it better to just focus on what I can do in my own country, or using the skills I already have to benefit others (and myself)?

Have you volunteered? What was your experience?